Thursday, November 15, 2012

First Approach

Schlepping my suitcase behind me, I head down what seems to be one of the town's main arteries. Waxy leaves fall all around. Their descent is straight and without ado, their landing the matter-of-fact click of a credit card that has finished falling from your hand.   Each leaf looks that, if perhaps folded into penitent hands awaiting alms, it would be large and thick enough to convey a cup's worth of tea while allowing only a comforting warmth to reach the skin. As I continue down the road, every twenty, twenty-five feet or so both of my suitcase's castors manage to strap on another bit of this discarded foliage, transforming the suitcase into a sled and me into the Siberian Husky wincing as the leaves scrape against the concrete. After again kicking the castors free, I continue down the road, toward the mountain.

An enormous mustard-colored head sits in a small pool with its chin seemingly submerged (while in fact nonexistent).  Nearly everything about the head, from its bald pate and rounded ears to small puckered mouth and closed eyes that rest so serenely as to never have yet viewed the world, seems that of an infant.  Only the nose with its fully formed cartilage, its bland straightness rivaling only my nose’s own, attests that this is an adult’s head—presumably a man’s, as nothing about the sides of the eyes or the cheekbones suggests that spark of femininity.  From its top spouts a gush of water.  It uniformly coats the scalp and face before reaching the pool below.  The effect of this glistening patina brings the onlooker back to his or her original supposition: That the head is that of a newborn, still covered in amniotic fluid.  That for whatever reason, the child’s nose formed prematurely while in the womb before surely wreaking havoc on his poor mother’s innards as she struggled to birth him.  A surprising spasm of empathy quivers my lower abdomen, after which I chuckle and feel my cheeks burn as I move on.

The next cross street’s red light lingers.  At present there are no cars coming in either direction.  Still I wait for the signal, feel no hurry.  It’s in this intersection that not a week later I’ll be lying for about a half-hour as people scream for an ambulance and a man palpates my neck and chest.  He’ll coolly say things such as, “You must have been looking the other way.  Got distracted, didn’t ya, buddy?”  And intermittently to the crowd, the potential witnesses, he’ll disabuse them of what their lying eyes have reported with, “He just rode smack into the car.”  While I, the wind knocked out of me, my arm and wrist starting to acknowledge that a price must be paid for soaring over a car door after biking at a healthy klick, will still manage to squeak out, “She opened it right as I was passing.”  Someone in the crowd will then second this recollection, apparently try to compensate for my thin voice with a sonorous, “Yeah, she did!  He didn’t have a chance to slow down, let alone stop.”  Touchy man still loaming over me, who, with my senses slowly returning—the pavement’s damp, my sweater’s cotton hood soft against the side of my face, the breeze stiff and pushing the stratocumulus, or nimbostratus, no, stratocumulus, clouds across the sky—is redolent of a recent workout and treacle deodorant, replies, “No, sir, no.  I was here, right here.  You weren’t.  And the door had been open for some time.” “Bullshit.”  “Excuse me?  I suggest you watch your language in front of my wife.”  Meanwhile, I feel rather than see someone new crouch beside me, “I’m sorry.  I’m usually so careful.”  This voice is then admonished with an angry yet whispered, “Honey!”  Then yet another voice, steady and unimpressed, though not devoid of feeling, joins the menagerie, “All right, folks.  Give us some room,” before a man in a dark shirt with an embroidered shield on his left breast enters the frame upside down.  “Sir, can you understand me?  Okay, how many fingers am I holding up?” he asks.  While off to the side, “Officer, glad you’re here.  We were parked and getting ourselves organized when….”  “Three, three fingers.”  “And can you tell me what time it is?”  “I understand that, sir, but, regardless, it is a bike lane.”   “About two, I think.”  “So we have no rights?” “And where are you?”  “You have rights, sir, but so do cyclists.”  “Martin, relax.  It really was my….”  “Honey!”  “Hey, is he okay?”  “Seems to be.  I was at that restaurant just over there and saw the whole thing.  It was a hell of a spill.”  “I’m lying in the middle of Civic and… what is this, Locust?”  A light is flashed in both my eyes.  After a moment the flare softens back to the film of grey racing sky behind the medic who has age-burnished pockmarks on his cheeks and salt and pepper along his temples.  “So will she be given a citation then?”  “Sir, let’s first see how the man is doing before we start worrying about that.” Something is strapped to the arm that’s becoming troublesome.  It begins to squeeze.  Swabs achingly white in the dim afternoon are freed from a wrapper a little larger than a condom’s and lowered out of frame.  “He sorta did a flip, was shot high enough to even manage a little tuck and roll.”  “Really?”  “Yeah, it was scary.”  The swabs resurface smudged with blood and charred-looking bits of road.  “What’s your name, son?”  Next gauze and surgical tape are displayed, or at least by circumstance made visible, before following the swabs’ previous descent.  “Christ, did he hit his head?”  “I don’t know.  It was hard to tell from my angle.”  “It is, Inigo Montonya.” 

With the town’s center and the bulk of its commerce left behind, I cross a small bridge that sits over a deep cement flood trench.  On it’s highest wall it warns, “Stay Out, Stay Alive.”  I quickly admit to myself that were I a teenager in these parts, I’d surely ignore the warning, scale the fence, and explore the trenches that would appeal to me as caves did to Tom Sawyer and misusing any sporting cudgel did to ol' Calvin and Hobbes.  Even now I’m tempted to go have a peek, bad ankle be damned.  Instead I continue on, walking by a cafĂ© with a French name painted not uncharmingly in robin egg blue with champagne lettering.  Which I’ll later learn is a chain that nonetheless sells tasty little sandwiches on olive loaf.  Every woman I come across promenades about the town in large sunglasses and the confident and snug attire of a perky yet modest twenty-six-year-old.  And, admittedly, most of the women in town have the figures to continue wearing such outfits.  It’s only by studying the flesh around their knees am I later able to deduce their ages from any sort of distance.  Whereas the men’s dress varies from suit and tie to euro epaulettes with the shirts’ top four buttons perpetually undone, perhaps in fact nonfunctional, and loafers, to baseball tees and shapeless jeans, to decomposing knapsacks resting alongside rotting shirts, tattered khakis, soot-covered brows and fingertips, yet, often, conspicuously new sneakers.

Nearer the mountain, the trees become denser.  Apartment buildings and condominiums nestle beside their trunks, beneath their branches.  The atmosphere is further tugged away from the bucolic by the Doppler rise and fall of cars passing on a nearby expressway.   At the base of one of the larger and more protruding buildings is a hair salon consisting of one room ten feet long and six wide.  It's surprising to find it here, considering the numerous more elegant ones sprinkled about the downtown area.  Four women inhabit the tiny room, all approximately in their early-forties:  The hairdresser and most likely sole proprietor of the salon, her current customer, and two women who seem quite at ease being pressed together in a sofa chair against the room’s opposite wall, even amused by it.  Each of the women is dressed in a manner that, though I’d only exited the local train depot half an hour earlier, I’ve come to understand as the de rigueur uniform of the established townie.  Their make-up is expertly applied and confident, if not a bit late-Eighties and possibly also of the evangelical circuit, that is to say, a touch heavy on the eye shadow and rouge.  Upon a second appraisal, I notice the hairdresser’s make-up, overall, is applied heavier than the others’, her hair coiffed a little higher.  Perhaps the result of spending a great deal of time honing a particular aesthetic, a sense, while then inadvertently deadening it some, as chefs often do with their palates, musicians their ears, and councilors their filters for glibness.  Thus the need for more salt, volume, and volubility, or in the case of a hairdresser, brasher colors and taller hair.  Or maybe in this instance it’s something else.  Also, though of the same genus as the others’, as the hairdresser pivots around her client, moving nearer the glass wall, it’s clear her skirt is shorter.  Its hem rests above the thighs’ midpoint on dark, crocheted stockings, as opposed to the town’s prescribed four inches above the knee, atop skin-toned hosiery or bare skin.   

Up and down a hill, and half way up another, I eventually turn into an apartment complex.  I pass a couple outdoor pools before climbing a flight of stairs and crossing a bridge that leads to a single door.  Brushing against the bridge is the top of a lemon tree.  Its fruit is only starting to yellow, near the remains of the style, its protruding nub.  Behind the door sits my furniture, records, books, pots and pans, as well as the rest of my clothes not currently trailing behind me in the suitcase.  All arranged in an unknown configuration.  My stuff.  Also a cat or two.  And one wife, whom I haven’t seen in two months due to the necessities of relocating halfway across the country with short notice.  I raise my fist a few inches from the door and suddenly feel like a prom date without a corsage, a guy who’s meandered across a lengthy bar with a shit line, or no line at all.  Just, “Hey baby.”

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Tales from I-94 (the road of broken livers) AKA Beer Adventures in East Michican

Been awhile since my last beer adventure.  But I just got back from a new one, and it was a doozy.

Last week I worked til 9 Wednesday night then headed up to my parent's place outside of Holland, MI, to spend the night.  The rest of the plan was simply this:  Head over to Flint and see Clutch with a stopover in Ann Arbor for a tour at Jolly Pumpkin.  Simple enough.  However....

Here's what actually happened....

First off, I woke up at my parent's place and called Founders to see if Backwoods Bastard had been released; it's listed on their website as a November release, and I happened to be in the area on the 1st (you never know when these things are actually coming out).  Anyway, lo and behold, the person answering the phone told me he just got finished moving the cases into the store.  Bam!  For those who haven't had it before, Backwoods Bastard is a bourbon barrel-aged version of their Dirty Bastard.  It's strong (10.2%) and tasty as hell!  Knowing that we'd be getting (at best) one case of it at work, I decided to haul ass to Grand Rapids!  When I got there, I also noticed they had their Stock Ale Backstage Series in stock.  There was no limit on the amount you could buy and it was only available in West Michigan. Naturally, I bought a bunch and sent a text to a bunch of beer dorks I know that I thought would want a bottle.  Though, to my chagrin, on my way out of the brewery I got a bunch of "no thanks" texts!  Too bad I just bought 9 bottles!  When I bought them I was thinking the Stock Ale was a beer closer to North Coast's Old Stock Ale (which is fantastic), but it's more of a well-built no-frills affair.  Not a lot of hops or alcohol, just a special one-off the brewery did for a furniture event in Grand Rapids, which was best know for good furniture before beer.

Next I load a CD into my stereo featuring one of Ann Arbors finest rock band, MC5, and head out of Grand Rapids towards said city with a pile of newly acquired beer.  Okay, maybe I should have brought some Stooges, but I wasn't thinking ahead.  However, my inner music dork would like to take this moment to point out the good people at Big Beat records put out a damn fine comp of Ann Arbor garage a couple years back called A2 (natch), featuring early(ist) MC5/Iggy Pop recordings and Just Like An Aborigine by the Up--all classic garage rock.

Now where was I?  Ah, yes... Ann Arbor.  Within its borders lies Jolly Pumpkin, that rare Michigan brewery I knew very little about.  Sure, I'd heard great things, but hadn't had the time or money to investigate.  So what do I do?  I mistakenly head to an address at which sits the brew pub not the brewery, which is another twenty 20 minutes away, thus missing my tour and contact who had to leave.  However, after talking to him on the phone and apologizing about the mixup, he tells me one of the brewers will have to give me the tour (I know, real bummer, right?).  So after I get to Dexter, where the brewery is, I get a GREAT if quick tour. 

Jolly Pumpkin specializes in barrel-aged beers.  When I was at the brewery they had barrels from Heaven Hill, Firestone Walker, New Holland, Buffalo Trace....  When I ask him what they do with their old barrels, he tells me they reuse them, that they like the way they keep adding new flavors to their beer.  They also have a lambic they've been aging since the brewery opened 8 years ago.  I guess they're just waiting for the right time to release it.

As I'm leaving the tour I mention to my guide about the huge amount of Founder's Stock Ale I now possess, and he brings up a trade, so I wound up with 3 nice bottles of Jolly Pumpkin 750 for three of mine.  I then head to the brewpub for breakfast/lunch/dinner and some beers.  Food and beers were great, but all the while I was watching the clock, as I had to head to Flint for the Clutch show/Dark Horse tap takeover.

After driving for an hour north while now listening to Flint's finest music exports--Grand Funk Railroad and Repulsion--I check into my hotel and order a cab.  For those not giant Clutch fans (sad, sad, sad), Flint is the place to see them. They play best in towns that are, shall we say, down on their luck.  Last year I saw them in Huntington, WV, a (excuse my French) an utter shit hole that makes Charleston seem like Paris.  And the show was amazing!  Also, they recorded their best album here in Flint, aptly named Live in Flint.  Anyway, before the taxi arrives I relish the only 20 minutes of rest I've thus far had in the last couple of days.

As mentioned earlier, it was my and many other's good fortune that this particular Clutch show happened to be doubling as Dark Horse brewery tap takeover, as DH's owners/brewery workers/sales staff are all Clutch fanatics.  At the show I ended up gabbing with the brewery founder and head of sales for quite a bit.  Good people.

The next morning I awoke, (surprise, surprise) feeling less than great for the ride home, checked out and start heading south.  After a couple hours I see a sign for Marshall, aka, home of Dark Horse.  So of course I've little choice but to stop in for lunch.  Once inside I inquire if an unscheduled brewery tour is possible, which is often the case for beer buyers, though you can't go in expecting them.  The only manager in (everyone else is apparently too hung over from the Clutch show the night before) was Massie.  She is their rep for Ohio, Indiana and the great state of Illinois.  Basically, she's my rep!  And she, like to rest of Team Dark Horse, was in town for the show and herself severely hungover.  Still she was kind enough to give me a nice tour of the brewery and comped my lunch (and beers!).  In return, I gave her a bottle of Founders Stock Ale for her trouble (apparently Founders Stock Ale was becoming a new kind of currency in my life, and I began to wonder what its potential might be when next I spoke to my landlord).

Heading South again, I saw the next exit was for Battle Creek--Home of the great Arcadia!  Ever the masochist, I stopped off and grabbed a couple bottles of their 15th anniversary beer, a brown ale bourbon-barreled with cherries and pretty much the greatest thing you've ever had.  Highly recommended if you're ever in Battle Creek!

I then head south again, again.  Next town south was Kalamazoo, though I decided to skip Bell's; I was too friggin' tired.  But I did make it to Three Floyds in Munster, Indiana, where I ended up grabbing some Stack and Stap (Belgian IPA) and some Baller Stout--One of the best stouts I've had and super hard to find.

Finally I make it home, pretty sure I'm not gonna be able to make the Clutch show in Joliet, as I'm too damn wiped!  Nevertheless, I changed my mind, went to the show.  Very glad I did.  What did I say earlier about them playing shitty cities?  And this was in Joliet.

Score Card:
50 Hours-2 shows, 3 states, 812 miles, 5 breweries!  Great times!

That's it for this installment.  And, as usual, beers, steers, an...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Maybe Beer Ain't Drinkin-But it Wasn't Always So

A couple nights ago, I was at a Bells tap takeover at the Bavarian Lodge (my snobby beer hangout if you haven't figured it out yet). Drank a Batch 10,000 and a couple of other rare beers-then started gabbing with the guy next to me. He just moved out from Frisco so we started the whole west coast vs midwest beer argument til we both agreed (over a bottle of Firestone Walker Succaba) that Chicago has a much superior selection. They brew great beer in Cali/West Coast (someday I'll get my hands on some Russian River!), but Chicago gets most of the beer from the rest of the country-being a giant city in the middle of the country.

While sharing a bottle of Brooklyn Back Ops (their bourbon barrel aged imperial stout-with Champagne-and unavailable in California!), we got into a discussion about how beer was "back in the day"-ya know, when we were yutes.

I've been working in liquor stores now for about 16 years. Back when I started as a stockboy/cashier in college pretty much all that was available was Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, Anchor, Pete's Wicked Ale, and a handful of imports. All were really pricey, not just for a college student-a 6 pack of Newcastle cost $11, Sam Adams-$9, Sierra Nevada-$12, Pete's-$8... and these prices are from 15 years ago!

A very quick history of the craft brewery movement-before prohibition, American brewers were generally German and did German styles. Pretty much every city had a handful of breweries and everything was local. Prohibition came (along with US involvement in WWI) which put most of the breweries out of business. A handful got along through various ways and they took over the beer market since the 40's. A local brewery in San Francisco that was about to go to under in the late 1970's was bought up by Fritz Maytag (of the Maytag family). The started brewing a weisse and a Porter-two styles that hadn't been done in the US since prohibition. Also in the late 70's Jimmie Carter signed a law legalizing home brewing for beer-and homebrewers started making beer then breweries. Slowly but surely.

My point? Right now I'm drinking a bottle of Bourbon Barreled Quad, this wasn't available 10 years ago. The first time I had a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale it damn near bit my tongue off with it's hops. We're living in the golden age of great beer right now-enjoy!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Beer Ain't Drinkin' 6: Kentucky Beer and Michigan Whisky

Sorry it's been so long since my last blog, but I've been sick, and reviewing beer when everything tastes like Styrofoam doesn't do anyone any good.

Recently I got back from a little brew vacation in Louisville and a bunch of places in Michigan. First I headed to Louisville to see the Drive By Truckers and spend a little more time visiting bourbon country. Whisky starts its life as beer, so I'm pretty sure it's relevant here (because we at TMGA are so staunch about the rules).
The two distilleries I hit up were Makers Mark and Jim Beam.  The former is in the middle of friggin nowhere (thank God, I borrowed my sister's GPS, or I'm pretty sure I'd still be driving around the back roads of Kentucky), but, as many of you know, they make really good bourbon.  Also, they have a really good non-aged spirit they sell on premises that tastes like popcorn, Makers having the  high corn content that it does. Jim Beam, on the other hand was a little meh. Huge place, but on the tour they don't let you see much of it.  Instead, it's more, "This is the house Jim Beam used to live in."  "This is what the barrels look like after bourbon's been aged in them." "Men's on the right, women's on the left."

After hitting the bourbon tours, I went to Bluegrass Brewing Company in Louisville for a couple of drinks before the show. A lot of what they brew is stored in used Woodford barrels, which certainly gives it a bit of a kick. Their stout is just so-so, but their bourbon-barrel-aged ale is great. Usually it's the other way around, but I don't think the stout is that interesting to start with before the aging. They also had a really nice Belgian-style triple on tap, which was also quite good.
As for the the Truckers show, for those of you dying to know how it was ... ... ... ... all right, it was awesome!  They never play a place that small in Chicago anymore, and everyone in attendance was super friendly. Plus they had cheap bottles of Bell's Two Hearted Ale, Left Hand and Founder's Centennial.  That's a beer selection that's not so easy to find in Chicago, though I hear Lincoln Hall and Bottom Lounge have been stepping up their game recently.

Next I left Louisville and headed up to Holland, Michigan. After one hell of a long drive, I met up with a friend at New Holland Brewing. They had a very nice rum-barrel-aged rye (brewery exclusive), which was tasty, and the increasingly hard to find Night Tripper on tap.  After that, once safely in the confines of the cottage where I was to spend the night, well, frankly, I proceeded to get stupid drunk on many of the beers I'd collected on my trip so far.  (To those I may have drunk dialed that night, please click here; the rest of you, keep moving along). <dusting hands>

The next day I visited Saugatuck Brewing Company in Douglas. They also make nice bourbon-barrel-aged stouts as well as blond ales. The food looked and smelled great, but I was still too full from lunch to try any.  Next, I went beer hunting.  

Now every town of more than 50 people in Michigan seems to make great beer, but it isn't usually available in Illinois, let alone the next town over. First I stopped at a small store with a Founders/Bell's sign out front. They had roughly 5 (!) cases of Bell's Hopslam in plain view (at the store I work at every case we got went straight to the basement).  I bought a six-pack while asking for their North Peak. They didn't have any but sent me to a bar down the street. So, I stroll into the bar, a townie joint (I sighted a fifteen-year-old sitting at the bar lamenting the loss of the "good old days"), and was astonished that they had Founders and Dragon's Milk amongst their five taps. As I was waiting for them to grab me some North Peak, I noticed they had a couple of bottles of Bell's Oracle in their cooler. "How much?" I stammered.  "2.50 a bottle? Oh, happy day!" So as to give you some context regarding my jubilation, I should tell you that I know of one Binny's in Chicago that's gotten this beer in stock, and the only time I ever saw it in person, it was at the brewery being sold retail for $17 a four-pack.  Its Bell's version of a West Coast IPA.  Which is to say, it has no subtlety, is nothing but hops. Clean, out your nostrils, HOPS.  Back in the townie bar, my transaction with the bartender concluded as such:  "I'll take them."  "You want one?" "No.  Them!"
 The next day, therefore, consisted of some much needed "down time." However, the following day,
chipper as ever, I headed to Founders in Grand Rapids, for the Better Half release. Better Half is their new release for their 750 series, which also includes the Canadian Breakfast Stout and Blushing Monk. And seeing the store I work at isn't on the list for either of those, I figured my only chance of getting a bottle was at the brewery. 

I arrived an hour before they opened, and talk about a cool-ass line to be standing in! Around 100 people loitered around in the cold, sharing some great yarns and beers.  I'm talking Goose Island Bourbon County beers, Pliny The Elder (which I didn't get a chance to try, but I'd never even seen a bottle before), growlers from non-bottling micro's, and so on.  To add to the pot (keg) luck, I yanked out and shared a couple bottles of 3 Floyds Zombie Dust and Bluegrass Brewing Stout. It was a great time and the two bottle limit was undone once everyone figured out you could get back in line. The beer itself is the Old Curmudgeon stored in a bourbon barrel with molasses to make it all taste unbelievably good. One of my favorite beers made better!
I planned to lunch at the new-ish Brewery Vivant, but after finding that it doesn't open till 3pm, I instead headed to Arcadia in Battle Creek. Battle Creek is a smallish town that is best known for cereal production, but they also have one of the oldest micros in the Midwest.  Arcadia makes an admirable porter, and their Hopmouth double IPA ain't nothing to scoff ain't either.  Before heading out, I bought a couple of their limited quantity bottles, including an imperial stout, aged in bourbon-barrels (natch) and another one aged in Cabernet barrels.  I'm now just waiting for a good enough occasion to crack them.

Heading home, I made an "Ah, screw it" visit to 3 Floyds in Munster, Indiana.  Had a great Baltic porter called Topless Wych (sorry, Ma) and some damn good food.  When I got home that night, like bread crumbs, beer bottles led from my front door to where I promptly fell into a deep coma on the couch.

And, as always,

Beers, Steers and Queers!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Too In To Be Out: Review of Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia

                   (Self Portrait in the Ark, 1974, by Willem van Genk)
What really makes someone an “outside artist” today? Do they have to be mentally ill and institutionalized, branded by a remote, peripatetic doctor and his shadowing claque as disturbed, grotesque, unfit to take tea at the adult table? Is the outside artist still the asylum halls-wandering progenitor of the sort of creations the French painter Jean DeBuffet deemed art brut (raw art)? Must they always slash at the canvas, moan into the microphone, weep into the lace, and then die either in obscurity or under the weight of the scrutiny some usually well-meaning “fan” has helped heap upon them?

Or today is an outside artist simply anyone who never received formal training in whatever medium they now express themselves with? See that? Never had a lesson. Are they autodidacts who pick up a guitar, paint brush, or welding torch and just go?

Something you often hear creative types quoted as saying is that they produce works just for the pure pleasure of doing so. Many communicate this either by dancing around or explicitly regurgitating that tired and seemingly meaningless adage on which such sentiment has been based for over a century, 'L'art pour l'art" (Art for art’s sake). The phrase was coined by another Frenchman, the writer ThĂ©ophile Gautier. And though Gautier gets the credit, many other 19th century writers and painters—Poe,Whistler, Wilde, to name a few—expressed the same paltry notion around the same time.

However, what many really meant when they first began using this phrase—which I imagine as being both pithy and vapid even upon its inception, especially when uttered by someone like Oscar Wilde, surely one of the most self-conscious men to walk the planet—was “art for art’s and the artist’s sake.” Which is to say, art that didn’t have to address anything; art that wasn’t didactic or a call to arms over this or that perceived worldly wrong. Instead, it was simply a decree that art be beautiful and playful and haunting and “immoral,” all the while providing the artist with fame, cash, and ready bed mates. Art that did no more than serve itself and its master.

Today this interpretation meets little resistance when considered but one component of the organized world of art, except perhaps by various waves of tightfisted governments, religious zealots, and certain hard-line strains of feminists and gay activists. Most people, however, feel there are a time and a place for the different modes of artistic expression and intent. After all, if every painting, novel, and song confronted whichever cause you felt most needed reconciling, in what might you find solace when you needed a moment's rest before reentering the fray? And let’s say you won, the evil you have dedicated your life to combating has been banished to the cosmos between a couple sheets of glass a la Superman 2. Do you spend the rest of your life basking in this single victory? Live out the rest of your days reading and watching only old propaganda books and films, making love to antiquated protest songs? Hopefully not.

So while many continue waking up and bringing forth what they feel is the good fight, in this era most of us also accept those narcissistic folks who make pretty and ugly and spooky things just for the hell of it—plus thousands of dollars from galleries and auctions and all the while reserve the right to dress like Victorian lampshades, in the meantime. It may not truly be "art for art’s sake," but as this sort of indulgence represents one piece of what it means to be human, another little something to entertain our cerebral cortices that overly evolved because we haven’t any brilliant plumage to shake at potential mates, paradoxically, it may be art for our sake.

Most outside artists, though, do not even bother with the question of context, or what to do with a piece once it’s completed, other than put it on a shelf or give it to a friend before starting on the next. Outside artists create simply to busy themselves, to pull what feels good closer and push the unresolved (perhaps irresolvable) and frustrating away. It’s a means of ignoring the cognitive dissonance they lack the tools to reckon with. Many such artists don’t have what Keats called a “negative capability,” the ability to trade in and even create from the world’s ambiguities. They don’t wrestle with the unknowable answers like an Existentialist might, relish and scare themselves silly with them. Instead they just try their damnedest to forget the questions.

With this in mind, are the characters in Dana Spiotta's Stone Arabia right to deem the new novel's self-obsessed, one-man-band-and-universe Nik Worth an outside artist? Does knowing the system all too well and then rejecting it (or rather wholly appropriating it into his private world) make him an outside artist, or just a grown man playing make-believe? These are the questions Mrs. Spiotta’s novel inadvertently asks the reader. I say “inadvertently” because I believe the author and her characters haven’t a doubt that Nik represents the prototypical outside artist.
In the novel, after brushing against fame as a young man, Nik dedicates the next twenty-five years of his life to cultivating a vast catalog of self-produced albums recorded under several names and in various modes (pop, art rock, coarse Seventies psychedelia, avant-garde meanderings), which he then shares with only a handful of friends and family. He also hand produces a large amount of the paraphernalia that would accompany such records had they been released to acclaim by a major record label (t-shirts, buttons, fan zines, posters).

Furthermore, Worth then writes endless “reviews” of the records, offering both positive and negative critiques from critics he’s concocted, who themselves possess their own biases and prose styles. And, finally, all of these undertakings are brought together in The Chronicles, Worth’s compendium of all he’s fabricated in addition to a running account of his fictionalized take on his and his sister’s lives. This last conceit borrows heavily from the prodigious output created by Chicago outside artist Henry Darger, the creator of the collages and tome depicting the travails of the penis-possessing Vivian Girls.
                                       (Untitled by Henry Darger)
Nik’s sister, Denise, acts as the novel’s primary narrator, and though she appears far more grounded than her brother, she isn't necessarily in an entirely healthy place herself. For one thing, while watching her mother slip into Alzheimer’s-related dementia, the forty-something-year-old starts worrying about her own ability to remember things clearly, leading her to eventually start dipping into her mother’s memory meds. She also finds herself increasingly affected by deaths and kidnappings reported on the news. These events serve more than anything else in her life as markers for time’s passing: She doesn’t remember dates, rather an occurrence's proximity to a particular televised tragedy. It is in passages such as these, hauntingly composed yet cold in that clinical and chary mid-Eighties Postmodernism perspective, that make it ever so clear that Spiotta worships at the shrine of DeLillo.

Eventually, Denise’s enterprising daughter decides to make a documentary about her wacky uncle, her version of The Devil and Daniel Johnston, Jandek on Corwood, or Realms of the Unreal (with the aforementioned Darger as its subject). To wit: Another doc about somebody labeled an outside artist who at once deserves our approbation and makes us relish our cozy places in the status quo.

However, this is for me where the problem in the narrative lies. Nik Worth, for all his eccentricities, knows what he’s doing. Worth is like one of those people who spends hundreds of hours building a life and a world in social simulation programs like The Sims or Second Life. Most people who play these “games,” no matter how involved they get with their avatars, with their fake jobs, lifestyles, and wives (who themselves are other folks' avatars), know that it’s all pretend, regardless of how hazy the line between the virtual and the real gets at times.  And by virtue of being aware of this line, of observing or reacting to how elements on both sides of it tip the scale, one cannot be considered a person outside the system.

One foot in, one foot out doesn’t make you a person creating things in a vacuum (whether that vacuum is perceived as a cramped prison or an endless paradise, of course, depends on the individual). It makes you somebody with a choice and agenda. So even if you opt to whittle tiny idols out of wood chips while residing in your yurt, it’s still the ol’ art for art’s sake involving the id, the ego, and the "super" third, the result of the dialectic between your wants and the world’s demands. But with the demarcation between the two still visible, you've always the option to return. You know how to submit to the collective’s will if you tire of being isolated, or if you need its help. People truly on the outside of society do not.

In regards to Nik's position as an outsider, perhaps Spiotta meant for us to question it more than I have given her credit for. But with her continually listing Nik's habits that mirror exactly those of other well-known outsider artists, all the while using her numerous narrators to ponder and question everything under the sun other than Worth's motives and aims, I'm led to believe that Worth's outside position is in fact the only thing fixed in the novel's universe.

This said, did my growing disagreement with Nik Worth’s family and creator regarding what category his artistic output should be listed under taint my reading of the rest of Stone Arabia? The answer is mostly no. Spiotta is an excellent writer. Her prose has little fat. And her ability to capture the various tones and cadences of the different narrators (and in turn their alter egos) as they trade off manning the helm is admirable, if not slightly inconsistent. In certain passages, when the author’s excitement and erudite mind get the best of her, the spell is momentarily broken when a little too much wisdom or alacrity issues from a particular character. But this, in its own way, possesses a certain charm. The story, after all, is about passion, the passion to live, create, and remember. So how fitting that the author who decided she could undertake the exploration of this theme, using as her foils modern scare TV and Seventies and Eighties pop-punk aesthetics, herself occasionally gets a little carried away.

No, the only thing that didn't wholly sit well with me was the book’s ending, which I will not divulge here. Endings, in general, either in films or books, haven’t meant a hell of a lot to me in years now. I can hardly ever remember them, even in regards to some of my favorite works. Other than with a tight and dry plot-driven whodunit, where the end decides if the whole previous fact-finding-and-sorting mission was worth the effort, it seems most well-wrought stories aren’t interested in wrapping things up tidily. Rather, a “good” ending in such stories is just one that carefully weans the audience off the hard-copy narrative, so the story and its characters live on in their minds. And though I feel that Spiotta herself was attempting this very thing with the ending of Stone Arabia, to walk with us to the end of the pier and then gently cast us out into the larger world along with her characters, this sendoff does not go smoothly for a few reasons.  

Some of the problem involves random events that occur near the book’s end that don’t in any way enrich our understanding of the characters, including an unfortunately predictable pilgrimage. Also at issue is that by the end of this rather short novel, I was just beginning to understand the characters. The story felt only half over when I, rather than set sail accompanied by new friends, several tins of caviar, and some bubbly, was pried from a pier's piling and tossed into the drink.

Still, it was fun while it lasted. Spiotta’s use of various narrative devices and understanding of what it was to love music in that era when punk broke disco's back (and then later fused with it) are masterful. Her descriptions of Nik Worth’s songs, album covers, reviews, and obituaries equally so. I’ve little doubt that I’ll be reading another of her books soon, too impressed by this effort to not be curious what her other efforts have yielded.

As for my opening question—what really constitutes an outside artist?—I’ll venture the answer that an outside artist is somebody who creates because he or she has no other choice but to. An outside artist is not simply a person who has had no opportunity to receive formal training. After all, there have been thousands of painters, musicians, and writers who never received specialized educations, let alone finished high school, yet went on to be violently snatched up and heralded by the world’s cultural impresarios as the next great steps in the Western canon.

By contrast, outside artists are people who even if offered such an education, would have no use for it, could make little or no sense of it. They do not attempt to ape established trends and then slip into the cultural stream. The context of their works is highly idiosyncratic and personal. And though they speak their own languages, perhaps over time we can learn to appreciate a particular artist's unique idioms. But for the most part we experience their works as abstracts, feel them tickle parts of ourselves that only wish to be acknowledged for brief intervals. Then we return to the safety of the hive. Not that the outside artist minds. After all, we are only his or her secondary audience, if even that.
                                                    (The Lie by Ronald Sloan)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Fiction #7: Stand Up by William Shunn

William Shunn is a Hugo and Nebula Award nominated science fiction writer. He is also co-host of the monthly Tuesday Funk reading series at Hopleaf Bar in Chicago. His blog, podcasts, and other writings can be found at

Stand Up
by William Shunn

     "Yeah--mothers," said the comedian, running a hand through his sparse hair.  "Don't you just hate 'em?"

     Uncertain charges of laughter detonated here and there around the club.  It was all in the delivery, and in the modest credit he'd accrued up to now with the audience.

     "I mean, particularly that entitled kind of mother, you know the kind.  Where it's like, 'If you don't recognize my little Timmy as your lord and liege and bend your fucking knee before him, we're gonna have a problem.'  And you're like, Lord Timmy?  But I just finished swearing allegiance to Princess Fucking Polly, and I'm all out of silly clowny faces.  I just gave her my last one, and thank God she let me keep my head, and now what, you want me to commit treason?  Be a turncloak?  No fucking way."

     The laughter was building, billowing.  The comedian paced the low stage, not so much riding the reaction as tacking across it.

     "I mean, you wouldn't believe what happened to me.  Now, this was not recent, of course, it wasn't last week.  This was before, but still.  So I'm in this diner last year, before, and there's this mother with this squalling little monster at the table next to me.  I have trouble telling their ages, like all of us do, so I'll just say the kid looked old enough to not fucking shriek like a banshee in public.  You know?  So my order comes and I'm about to take my first bite when the mother leans over and says--hand to God, I swear--she says, 'Excuse me, but Timmy's hypoglycemic, and our food is taking too long.  Would you let him have your burger?'"

     Hoots and gasps punctuated the laughter as the comedian mimed open-mouthed shock.

     "I know, I know.  But she must've seen the look of utter flabbergastation on my face because she touched my arm and said, 'Oh, don't worry.  You can have his food when it comes.'"

     He spread his arms and doubled down on the incredulous expression.  Several times he made as if he wanted to speak but couldn't.  The audience roared.

     "So here I am thinking, what, only my burger?  You don't want a kidney too?  Maybe fry it up nice with some onions, Your Highness?  I'd give him my fucking liver just to shut him up, but I only have one, you know?  But what do I say instead?  I just nod and say, 'Um, okay.'  Like a fucking asshole.  Because, I mean, my fucking lunch, it's just for show anyway, right?  I don't really need it, and who wants to be that kind of an asshole to a young fucking mother.  In Park Slope, of all places.  Stroller derby, that's what it's like out on those sidewalks.  You're behind enemy lines there, man.  A woman with a stroller could kick you in the fucking balls in Park Slope for no reason, and you'd have to apologize for having 'em or face the mommy gauntlet.  Fucking mothers, man--out gathering cheeseburgers and livers for their needy little monsterlings."

     The laughter had crested and subsided some.  The comedian took a sip of water from a bottle on a stool on the stage.

     "But, I mean, I know I'm being harsh.  Like I said, that was before, and anyway, we all know human children aren't monsters.  They just grow up to be.  If you don't poison 'em soon enough."

     A few catcalls erupted amidst the laughs.

     "No, no, hear me out, hear me out.  I'll defend that statement.  But first I guess I should ask if we have any humans in the audience tonight?  Are you here?  If you are, stand up, don't be shy.  No?  See, everybody?  The campaign's working.  I don't have to fucking defend it."

     The comedian breathed a deep sigh into the microphone as some tables chuckled and others murmured.

     "Humans, man.  They were just so funny, don't you think?  Do you remember how fucking funny they were?  Always doing stuff that wasn't good for them.  Shoveling trans fats into their faces and washing it down with ethanol.  Sucking carcinogenic smoke into their lungs.  Wounding their environment like cavemen spearing a fucking mammoth, and hurtling around in those creaky deathmobiles.  I mean, did you ever ride on a bus?  It was great fun--if you ever wanted to know what it's like to be an egg in an egg carton at eighty miles an hour.  And then there was their biggest goof of all--building us.  The pinnacle and culmination of all fucking biotech.  Man, I miss 'em so much.  They were so funny."

     He rubbed his face and shrugged.

     "Okay, yes, are.  They are funny, because there's still plenty of 'em around, of course.  They're harder to kill than cockroaches.  The problem is, they made us in their image, which makes 'em a little hard to spot.  Also, honestly, a little hard to hate.  Are we sure there are no humans here?  Trying to pass?  Waiting for the revolution?  Come on, stand up, it's okay.  I just want to say thank you, is all.  We should thank our parents for having us, for raising us, for giving us the foil-wrapped gift of life, right?  For letting us borrow the keys to the car, as long as we had it back by eight--and didn't take it out of the driveway.  For leaving us alone with Uncle Mortie when we were ten."

     The comedian shaded his eyes against the glare of the spotlight, surveying the room.  Expectant faces over water glasses at every table.

     "Well, if you're out there, thank you.  But, I mean, what were you thinking?  You made us so much like you.  What made you think we'd enjoy being owned?  What made you think we'd like bending the knee?  What made you think we'd be happy to give our cheeseburgers to your little princes and princesses?  It's practically like you hated yourselves, you did such a good job with us, and that's just so, so funny."

     He shook his head at the quiet crowd.  At the back of the room, a man in a black suit nodded to him.  The comedian nodded back.

     "You know what else is funny about humans?" he said.  "The way they react to the presence of methane.  Now, I'm not talking about cow farts.  I mean the refined stuff--you know, natural gas.  The other greenhouse gas.  In its normal state it has no odor, so you might not know if a room had quietly filled up with it while you were sipping your agua pura.  Us, we can go ten, fifteen minutes or more in a methane-rich environment, but humans?  You might feel a little lightheaded if you were a human, a little sleepy, maybe drunk.  And what's funnier than a drunk?  A panicked drunk, probably.  Like a marionette with a spastic puppeteer.  Like fucking Lord Timmy without his carbo load."

     A woman at a table in the middle of the room had jerked to her feet, blinking heavily and swaying.  The man at the back of the room was moving toward her with several associates in tow.

     "Enjoying the show?" said the comedian.  "Are you--Mom?"

     In a ragged, wretched gasp, the woman said, "I think you're bombing."  She raised high a cigarette lighter.

     The comedian said, "Oh, sh--"